This Series on Swedish Death Cleaning Unpacks the Emotional Burden of Clutter

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll learn new ways to organize your life.

Americans have a problem with death. We don't talk about it—in fact, we hardly even say the word. When someone dies, we say they "passed away," when someone alludes to a time when they’ll be dead, we tell them, "Don't talk like that," and this avoidant culture no doubt contributes to the fact that 67 percent of Americans have no estate plan at all. But avoiding the topic of death doesn't make it any less of a reality, and doing so gives us less power over what happens to us and our stuff when we die. That idea—with extra emphasis on the "stuff" part of it—is what the new Peacock series The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is all about.

The series, based on the best-selling book of the same name, follows three Swedish death cleaners—organizer Ella Engström, designer Johan Svenson, and psychologist Katarina Blom—as they help people declutter their homes (so that other people don't have to when they die). Think: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo meets Queer Eye, but with the topic of death guiding the entire premise. Also guiding the show is Amy Poehler, who serves as narrator and executive producer.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of death cleaning, it's a Swedish phenomenon (further popularized by Margareta Magnusson's 2017 book) that involves organizing, decluttering, and giving away your belongings some time before you die.

For many Swedes, though, it's kind of just a way of life. "It's not even a loaded topic," Blom shares over a recent video call. She recalled an experience where her in-laws came over to talk about death cleaning and details of how their funerals should be handled, explaining how normal it all felt to discuss.

"I have another friend, her father is dying and she says that they talk so much about death, it's like talking about pouring milk in their coffee," she says. "Like, 'Do you want milk with that?' That's the easy level of it."

But, of course, for most Americans, it's not easy at all—and the show unpacks a lot of that discomfort (along with unpacking a lot of random belongings, creepy basement dolls included.) While the name of the process can sound rather morbid, Blom and the other cleaners assure that death cleaning is really about life.

"It's so paradoxical in a way because when you bounce things off of death, everything becomes so clear," she says. "It creates this massive shift in perspective and what is really life-affirming comes to the surface .... Like, what do I want my life to be about? And can that be seen in my home as well as in my life?"

There's a lot to learn from this show—about life and decluttering alike. So, we rounded up some of our favorite takeways from watching the series and talking with the death cleaners (who are ironically very bubbly and delightful.)

Death Cleaning Can Help Your Loved Ones

Just as having a will can save your family and loved ones extra hassle and stress after you die, death cleaning can offer similar relief. Grieving is difficult enough as it is, and having to sort through and make decisions about all of the deceased's belongings only adds more emotional strain.

Svenson explains that this idea of looking out for the ones you'll leave behind is baked into Swedish culture. "The cultural thing in Sweden is also not to burden other people," he says.

Start Small

Whether you're doing a full death cleaning or just trying to declutter an unorganized corner of your home, this sentiment applies. When Engström helps the show's subjects in sorting through their belongings, she gives them color-coded stickers to assign different fates to different items: Green stickers go to items that should be kept, yellow stickers go to items that should be donated or given away, and red stickers go to items that should be trashed. But, she likes to ease people into the process.

"When you're doing this, you need to start somewhere and you don't start with the things that are most emotional," Engström says. "I often compare it to peeling an onion that has different layers, so you take one layer and then you take the next layer and the next layer."

Once people get going, she says they tend to get "more and more secure making tougher decisions" and they “build up a muscle" for the process.

Give Yourself a "Dilemma Box"

Engström's decluttering method also includes what she calls a "dilemma box." This box is for the items that you're not yet ready to make decisions about during the decluttering process—whether that's a sentimental family heirloom or a special clothing item you no longer wear. The box should be relatively small (to keep you from putting everything in it) and it should come with a deadline. Engström recommends setting a timeline for yourself, about two months out or so, at which point you need to decide whether to keep or get rid of whatever is in the box.

You Can "Death Clean" at Any Age

Death cleaning isn't just for people who are close to death. The same organizing methods and tactics can be used to edit your home at any point of your life—especially after a big life transition when your needs and priorities have shifted.

Allow Others to Help You

Svenson says one of his biggest takeaways from doing the show was realizing how common it is for people to isolate themselves. Confronting ideas about our own mortality—and all of our belongings—can feel extremely personal, but we don't (and shouldn't) have to do it all on our own.

Svenson explains that the show demonstrates how important connection and sharing is in the process of death cleaning and evaluating where we're at in our lives. "That was like a red thread through all the episodes that people really want to connect and want to feel that connection and be validated in this process," he says.

Whether you're organizing your home or need help in other aspects of your life, letting others in also goes hand in hand with letting go of shame, which was another common thread of the show. "There's this analogy I use coming from the psychology side, like, we have dark corners that we're ashamed of in our home, but also within ourselves," Blom says. "So when Ella opens up boxes in those dark corners, emotions surface and I can step in and we can sit down and be like, 'Let's not shy away from this. Let's break that cycle of avoidance and just pause and sit and breathe and investigate this emotion.’”

Prioritize Your Present Life

Perhaps one of the best takeaways from the show is how much freedom can come from the process of decluttering. As studies have shown, clutter in our homes can have a negative impact on our mental health. So, decluttering—whether it’s done with the idea of death or even just an upcoming move in mind—doesn’t just look out for ourselves and our loved ones in the future, but it can also improve our current lives.

So, when decluttering your home, it’s important to consider which items are benefiting you in your current life and which items are holding you back.

And it’s evident in every episode how much relief the show’s subjects got from letting go of some of their stuff. Suzi, a 75-year-old former showgirl from Episode 1, gives a perfect testimonial of that when she’s thanking the death cleaners at the end. “I didn’t know you were going to declutter my soul,” she tells them. “I was living in the past, but now I’m living for today.”

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